Twenty Hours In Ojai
by Deb Thompson

(Sometimes real life knocks me off-balance, and writing about it is the only way to regain favor with my own thoughts.)

photo from Casitas Pass Our room was apparently not ready. I sat in our blue Honda and watched the lean motel manager leave the office with his head cocked and his tongue loaded for bear. He took the outside walkway with long, cowboy strides and confronted the little crew of female housekeepers who were cleaning another room. My husband was still in the motel office, waiting for keys. We were not particularly impatient to check in, but the manager was waving his arms and fussing at the women across their cart full of linens and antiseptic sprays. I could hear "Rapido, rapido," and I laughed to myself at his frustrated jumble of English swearing and Spanish jump words, which drifted across the parking lot like some AM radio on speed dial.
The California community of Ojai is one of those places that practices an uneasy courtship between tourists and locals. Its long main street is wrapped in a crazy-quilt of art galleries, restaurants that serve big breakfasts, golf courses, and on the west end of town where we stayed, a ranger station . We had learned that this place was a halfway point to wilderness hikes and condor viewing. Lightly forested mountains stood, stoic and unapologetic, behind the town.
After we were settled into a room, we went for early Sunday dinner down the street, to a welcoming place with a vine-covered archway in the back and an iris windsock at the patio entrance. The food was neatly prepared with colorful summer vegetables and lots of fresh herbs, all brought by servers who were easy-going and unrushed. We munched hot rolls at a table near a front window and then watched a golfer across the road suddenly send a club, either by accident or in anger, flying across the fairway. The act seemed wrenchingly violent and out of place in such peaceful surroundings, and I felt a sudden intrusion of raw sadness in this pleasant dining room.

photo from Casitas Pass
I found myself staring compulsively at a detailed drawing of a solitary oak tree hanging on the wall opposite my chair, and I finally got up to see who the artist had been, but the signature was illegible. I asked the servers if they could identify the picture's creator, but no one in the restaurant knew whose work it was. It was not the first time an image of a lone oak had affected me, but the picture was both compelling and disquieting, and its presence somehow underscored the bipolar feeling of the town.

We visited the ranger station the next morning and collected trail maps and wildlife information for a future visit. The ranger at the desk had lovely cat-green eyes that went nicely with the woods. She spoke fondly of the area, telling us she was a third-generation resident who had volunteered on trails for years, and was finally getting paid to do what she loved anyway. We knew she meant it, because she kept saying it was a shame we didn't have time that day to do the short little hike here or there, and her green eyes widened with enthusiasm every time she pointed out another trail on the maps. I asked about the condors, and she highlighted our maps with yellow circles and lines, pausing at one point to casually remind us that the area was also a well-known haven for rattlesnakes.

She left us for a moment to help a woman locate a waterfall on a map, and I thought again of this oddity of a little town, nested between ocean and mountains, with its July morning marine layer that gave way to midday sun and afternoon temperatures in the nineties, a place where the neighbors included both rattlesnakes and condors. City tourists paused here on their way for a quick fix of nature. Locals tried to paint the place in charming adobe hues to attract spending visitors, probably wishing all the while that instead they could blend everything in with the hills and disappear to the outside world.
We left Ojai by way of Highway 150, which winds through Casitas Pass. The mountains behind us stood high enough to hide their secrets in the mist of clouds, and the summer terrain bore the sparse color of stressed wildflowers. Spring's abundant scramble of leggy growth had been forced into wind-hammered sculptures the colors of bronze and steel, all superheated into lifeless forms in the open furnace of a summer sun.

photo from Casitas Pass
I kept taking backward looks until we passed the watery playground that is Lake Casitas, and then it was time to concentrate on approaching the coast again, and going home. I couldn't say whether I was refreshed by being in Ojai, but I felt different. And maybe the best compliment one can give a place is that one breathed enough of its essence to be changed inside. I think I would enjoy going back someday to this town that is bathed in both fog and sunlight, and which operates both souvenir shops and schools. And if I'm uneasy in the knowledge that this place is cursed with a few coils of rattlesnakes, my spirit is reassured when I remember that it is also graced with the soaring wings of condors.

Copyright© 2001 Deb Thompson
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